Imagine . . . : 16 Observations on Imagination, Theology, Discipleship, and the Church

michael-aleo-DpgzNS1yvWg-unsplash.jpg“Imagine there’s no heaven.”
— John Lennon —

“Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations,
captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life.”
— Kevin J. Vanhoozer —

In seminary I took a class called “The Worshipping Church,” where one of our assignments included visiting churches outside our denomination. In one of those visits, I went to a local Roman Catholic Church, where before, during, or after the service (I cannot remember), the instrumentalist played the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. If you are unfamiliar, the lyrics begin

Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try
No hell below us / Above us only sky

Admittedly, the instrumental tune is soothing, but the casual denial of heaven and hell is satanic. And though the words were not sung aloud in the service, to anyone familiar with the song, it was not too difficult to imagine what the song was saying.

I bring up this occasion not to bemoan the presence of that song in church—it’s exclusion from the worship set should be obvious. I bring up the song “Imagine” to observe the lack of imagination that cripples so many of God’s churches. As Kevin Vanhoozer has observed, “Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life.”

Going further, Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine, reiterates the need for churches to engage the imagination. Indeed, this is more than a hat tip to the arts; as Vanhoozer argues, imagination is a necessary (and biblical!) step between theory and practice, between faith and love.

As he has (for years) sought to bridge the chasm between knowledge and action with what he calls “theodrama” or “the drama of doctrine,” Vanhoozer rightly observes the importance of imagination. And in what follows I want to cite sixteen of his observations on this subject and why it is so vital for the church.

Sixteen Truths About Imagination, Discipleship, and the Church

1. Discipleship is about imagination not information.

“Making disciples involves more (but not less) than informing minds or forming habits. It also involves transforming imaginations, that is the primary ways they [disciples] see, think about, and experience life.” (xxv)

2. Imagination drives our lives.

“The time, energy, and money we spend during our roughly fourscore years on the world’s stage is largely a function of the stories and images of human flourishing in which we believe and put our trust.” (3)

3. Like it or not, our image-laden impresses us “social imaginaries.”

“A social imaginary [a term coined by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age] is the picture that frames our everyday beliefs and practices, in particular “the ways people imagine their social existence.” The social imaginary is that nest of background assumptions [Taylor calls them “unthoughts”], often implicit, that lead people to feel things as right or wrong, correct or incorrect.” (8, quotes from Taylor, A Secular Age, 171)

4. A Bible-saturated imagination is the goal of theology.

“Theology serves the church by helping to shape its collective imagination so that its image of its body life, and everything else, is governed by the gospel message at the heart of the master story that unifies Scripture.” (10)

5. The world disciples its followers 24/7.

“To make disciples we have to wake disciples—wake them to the metaphors and myths of which secular culture is an expert purveyor” (14).

“Christian imaginations are captive to nonbiblical stories that do not lead us to Christ and thus fail to nourish our souls We need to call these stories out and expose their shortcomings, for there is no other gospel (Gal 1:7). We cannot hide behind orthodox theology and pretend that we are invulnerable to the cultural programming that is happening to us 24/7. We need to know that the church is in competition with the powers and principalities that are trying to capture our imagination, and from thence our body, heart, and soul.” (110)

6. Jesus taught his disciples by means of provoking their imaginations, and ours.

“Jesus taught in parables—metaphors extended into narratives. . . . Jesus himself understood the power of metaphors and stories (the stuff of social imaginaries) in making disciples. Richard Hays [in The Moral Vision of the New Testament] says that New Testament ethics is largely a matter of having one’s moral vision shaped by imaginative stories. For Hays, thinking biblically involves “metaphor-making, placing our community’s life imaginatively within the world articulated by the texts.” (15)

7. Imagination is at the heart of effective discipleship.

“Simply telling people what to think in order to be orthodox, and then expecting them to become disciples, is like telling people what they should eat in order to be healthy and then expecting them to lose weight. . . . [Again] imagination is a key factor in making disciples.” (55–56)

8. Imagination is what makes Scripture come alive in our hearts and lives.

“The imagination is a cognitive faculty — a kind of thinking— which is precisely why Jesus taught by telling stories. Learning Scripture and theology similarly require imagination, by which I mean the ability to grasp patterns and relate parts to the whole that gives them meaning. The imagination is what enables us to experience stories as both meaningful and powerful. What disciples need to learn is not simply discrete liturgical practices but the canonical habits that enable us to read Scripture as a unified story, a story that captures our imaginations—both our large-scale thinking and the desires of our hearts—and therefore a story we want to indwell.” (56, emphasis mine)

9. Not every kind of Bible reading produces a Christian imagination.

“It is by reading Scripture theologically and with imagination as a story of what God is doing in Christ through the Spirit that we come to see, and feel, our true selves in its mirror. It is seeing who we really are—those who by grace have been adopted into God’s family in Christ, fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17)–that forms the burning desire to become what we are: children of God; little Christs.” (55–56)

10. Cultivating and keeping the imagination is an outworking of Sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura is rarely mentioned in the same breath as imagination. Yet the supreme authority of Scripture includes the imagination in its domain. We must take captive not only every thought, but every imagination, to obey Christ and to make disciples (2 Cor. 10:5).” (102)

11. America’s rise in secularism is attributable to the loss of evangelical imagination.

“The United States had its origins in Judeo-Christianity, but the influence of Christianity has waned remarkably in recent years. You may have heard about the “nones, those who mark “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. What happened? Why are there so many? I think one of the most important causes of the decline in Christianity, Christian culture, and the notion of the pastor-theologian, is the loss of the evangelical imagination, an imagination nurtured—by which I mean discipled and disciplined—by the Bible. . . . The loss of belief in God was the result not of some scientific discovery or logical argument but of a tectonic shift in those taken-for-granted assumptions that frame our everyday beliefs and practices. One of the main theses of the present work is that church members are today at risk of exchanging one social imaginary for another, an exchange that would set disciples walking in some other way than the Way of Jesus Christ.” (104–05)

12. Discipleship in this “disenchanted” age must aim at the imagination.

“If the fundamental problem is the disconnect between what evangelicals confess and the cultural practices in which they engage, then the solution is not merely to believe harder. We must address the problem at its source: the captive imagination.” (105–06)

13. The imagination is necessary for biblical interpretation.

“The imagination— ‘synthetic’ reason—puts things together and forms wholes. Think of the imagination as the ability to perceive coherent patterns and meaningful forms. The imagination is a vital aid in discerning fittingness: the way parts belong to a whole. As such, the imagination is an essential ingredient in achieving biblical literacy, namely, the ability to see the various parts of the Bible as part of a single, unified, and meaningful whole. George MacDonald defines the imagination as ‘that faculty which gives form to thought.” Scripture, by presenting God’s thoughts in a variety of literary forms, addresses both imagination” (107)

14. Churches are suffering for want of gospel-formed imagination.

“Many churches are suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life. . . . Christians want to believe the Bible—they do believe it and are prepared to defend doctrinal truth—but they nevertheless find themselves unable to see or feel their world in biblical terms (“I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:24). Consequently, they experience a disconnect between the world they actually inhabit and the world of the biblical text whose truth they confess. Their professions of faith are out of whack with their lived practices. If faith’s influence is waning, then it is largely because of a failure of the evangelical imagination to connect the biblical and cultural dots.” (109)

15. The vitality of churches and their members depends on recovering the imagination.

“If the church is to fulfill her remit as a holy nation and live out her citizenship of the gospel, she must pit her evangelical imagination against every counterfeit. To see the world and oneself with evangelical imagination is to live not in fantasyland but in the only real world there is: the world created by God’s word; the world into which God’s word has entered and will return. The ten plagues of Egypt played this role in the minds of the ancient Israelites: they freed the imagination of the Israelites from thinking that the power of Egypt was sovereign. They deconstructed Pharaohs claim to power. It takes imagination to see that what God is doing with a small tribe of slaves is greater than the might of Egypt—or that what God is doing in the early church is greater than the grandeur that is Rome.” (110–11)

16. The role of a pastor is to cultivate the imagination of Christians with Word of God.

“Pastors can help, especially by reminding their congregations again and again what the Bible is and what it is for. Sola Scriptura is a shorthand way of doing this insofar as it reminds us that Scripture alone should exercise supreme authority over Christian faith and life, including the imagination.” (109)

“Pastors make disciples by helping congregations recover sola Scriptura. Scripture alone should rule the Christian social imagination. Scripture alone should be our supreme plausibility structure. Scripture alone should provide the images and metaphors by which Gods people live.” (113)

Dear Christian, Learn to Imagine . . . 

Like John Lennon, Vanhoozer calls the church to “Imagine.” Only his imagination does not eschew biblical theology, doctrine, and Scripture. Rather, he calls for “theodrama” and the practice of improvising the Scripture (i.e., the biblical script). This is what it means to be a true disciple and this is what the church desperately needs today.

We don’t need to import secular songs or secular ideas into the church to make the church relevant. But we do need to recover a theological vision of God and his world. And in this effort, imagination plays a central role. As the quotes above indicate, such imagination presses us deeper into God’s Word and it presses God’s Word deeper into us.

For this reason, let us take captive all vain imaginations that the culture gives to us. And may we, by God’s Spirit, press on to imagine all the riches God the Father has planned for us through Jesus Christ his Son. Truly, this sort of imagination does not twist Scripture to our own vain ideas; it conforms our hearts and minds to the revealed Wisdom of God through a theological reading of Scripture.

For more on this subject, go read Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine or any other of Kevin Vanhoozer’s books. They will stretch you, but they will also strengthen you to be more like Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Michael Aleo on Unsplash